FAA shutdown worsens ATC staffing crisis, CPDLC progress: NATCA

US controller union NATCA has rounded on the US Administration over the ongoing deadlock in Congress which has led to FAA controller training being suspended as part of the government shutdown.

During a shutdown, nearly 40 per cent of the government workforce is placed on unpaid furlough and told not to work. For the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that has meant the closure of its training academy in Oklahoma City where new air traffic controller hires go to begin their careers. In addition, classroom and simulator training at air traffic control facilities is also suspended during this shutdown.

Along with 3,000 other aviation safety professionals represented by US controllers’ union NATCA, many new hires who have recently graduated from the academy and begun working at their first air traffic control facility are furloughed, their training halted along with their pay.

Although classes at the academy are currently being delayed, NATCA warns that they could soon be cancelled, which would lead to fewer new hires by the FAA in fiscal year 2019, something that will exacerbate the current controller staffing crisis. The number of fully certified controllers has fallen more than 10 per cent in just the past six years and is now at a 30-year low. Furthermore, nearly one in five of these controllers are eligible to retire.

“This staffing crisis is negatively affecting the National Airspace System, and the shutdown almost certainly will make a bad situation worse,” NATCA president Paul Rinaldi said. “Even before the shutdown, controllers have needed to work longer and harder to make up for the staffing shortfall. Overtime in the form of six-day weeks and 10-hour days is common at many of the nation’s busiest and most short-staffed facilities including radar facilities in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas. And none of the controllers forced to work during this shutdown will see pay for their hard work to keep travellers safe until the shutdown ends. This shutdown must end now.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), representing 61,000 pilots, also demanded an immediate end to the shutdown which it said was adversely affecting the safety, security and efficiency of the National Airspace System.

“The nation’s airspace system is a complex transportation network that involves government and industry partnerships to function properly, and the disruptions being caused by the shutdown are threatening the safe operations of this network,” said Captain Joe DePete, president of Air Line Pilots Association, International.

“In addition to the safety oversight role, the FAA air traffic control organisation is in the midst of implementing a new communications capability, called Data Communications (Data Comm). The Data Comm programme has not yet reached its full implementation capability, and due to the shutdown there will be significant delays to the programme. If the shutdown continues, air traffic controllers and pilots previously trained on the system will lose their proficiency due to a lack of use, and re-training will likely be required. The need to re-train will add costs and will no doubt delay the progress of this important airspace system upgrade.”

NATCA members and pilots have already been successfully using DataComm at dozens of airports including Chicago O’Hare and New York-John F. Kennedy. The technology was being rolled out at 10 large, regional en route radar centres before the shutdown began. These centres are responsible for approximately 150,000 square miles of domestic airspace on average. Hundreds of controllers and traffic management coordinators at each of those facilities sequence and separate over-flights over multiple states, and arrivals and departures into multiple airports.

“The training for DataComm has a very specific performance schedule,” said NATCA safety and technology director Jim Ullmann, a retired air traffic controller who worked for many years at Seattle Air Route Traffic Control Center. “Because the timeline is so structured and the training so critical and time consuming, it places additional pressure on employees who are operating with only 83 per cent on average of the staffing target at their facilities. This shutdown will delay the implementation of DataComm in many centres by up to a year.”

NATCA’s Rinaldi pointed out that the latest staffing data from the FAA shows the agency has not made up for the sequester hiring freeze and subsequent shutdown in 2013 but plans to hire over 1,400 new air traffic controller trainees in fiscal year 2019.

“The closure of the training academy due to the shutdown complicates that plan,” he said. “Even when the shutdown ends, it will take 1-2 weeks to recall all employees and instructors. This shutdown will cause a ripple effect, delaying all training courses throughout 2019. Hiring one new trainee for every controller who retires doesn’t keep up with attrition. Only 64 per cent of Oklahoma City academy new hires have successfully completed the initial classroom training programme. That said, those who clear the academy have helped the FAA increase the number of ATC trainees at air traffic facilities each of the last four years.”

“Although there has been more hiring and a larger number of trainees, we haven’t seen enough of those developmental stage trainees successfully complete training to be air traffic controllers, and the number of fully certified controllers has continued to drop during that span. Because of these continuing FAA challenges with training, the FAA has not been able to resolve the staffing crisis. This shutdown will make that situation worse.”